THE ROOTS OF SAME-SEX MARRIAGE IN PAGAN ROME
By Frank G. Tunstall
Same-sex marriage is not a modern development of the last fifty years in American history. Instead of a new wave of the future, it is a return to the raw immorality of the pagan yesteryear.
The Biblical case against the sins of homosexuality and same-sex marriage can be made in the Old Testament Scriptures and in the New Testament writings of the Apostle Paul. For purposes of this article, however, I choose to anchor at the foot of Jesus’s Cross and stand on the Lord’s very specific teachings, regarding both hating sin and loving sinners. I will also look back into the history of the Roman Empire and show just how pervasive this immorality was in the Greek and Roman world, and show how the contemporary scene connects with the beginnings of the Gospel as good news from God.
The Teaching of Jesus
We are living in a time when the church must give serious attention to apologetics, which is the area of theology that proves and defends the Christian message. With that in mind, some in the homosexual community maintain Jesus never said anything about this moral issue. I maintain that He certainly did, when He taught on divorce. In doing so He left no room for same-sex marriage as ever having been in the divine plan.
The Pharisees addressed a question to Jesus about divorce. Master Teacher that He was, Jesus our Lord answered them by first defining marriage and then using that definition to respond to the divorce issue. In doing so, the Lord spoke to the first century question about divorce and to our twenty-first century struggle as well, and did both at the same time. And Jesus did it in three simple verses. Ah! The Master Teacher.Little wonder we say His teachings are timeless.
“Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6; Genesis 2:24, NKJV).
Jesus, who was the Messiah and Son of God, chose to answer the Pharisees’ question about divorce by reaching back to Eden, before sin entered the world, and defining what marriage is in the heart of God. That very definition, by deduction, defined what marriage is not. In fact, the language is very specific: “[God] made them at the beginning… male and female.” Three times in these three verses, in fact, Jesus used contrasting gender language: “male and female,” “father and mother,” “man… wife.” This specificity of language also means we are not making an argument from silence here; instead, the deduction is required by what Jesus plainly said. To use the colloquial phrase, “you can’t get there from here,” we answer based on the Lord’s definition of what marriage in in God’s heart, you cannot get to a justification of same-sex marriage from Jesus’ teaching.
It should be underscored none other than the Son of God was speaking when Jesus gave His conclusion: “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” Hence, we hold that God Himself is the author of marriage. This means He is also its defender. To trifle with the institution God created in Eden as the basic building block of society is dreadfully unwise. We conclude that for a man, or for government, including the courts, to re-define what God’s incarnate Son so clearly defined, is to oppose God.
Since Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question on divorce included His definition of marriage, it is only reasonable that the Lord’s command, “let not man separate” applies both to married couples and to the marriage laws of the cultures in which they live. If Jesus had wanted to make room for “marriage” between man and man, and woman and woman, (as was certainly practiced in the pagan cultures surrounding Israel and by at least some of Israel’s heathen Roman occupiers), He would of necessity have embraced it here when He defined marriage in the context of God’s plan first revealed in Eden (Genesis 2:24).
We conclude marriage is a three-fold covenant between a man, a woman and God. Marriage is so special in the heart of God it also blossomed as a sacrament of the Lord’s church [a sacrament is a ceremony in the church instituted and made sacred by Jesus Himself].
Same-Sex Marriage in the Roman Empire
Tacitus (56 – 117 A. D.) was a Roman senator and historian. His Annals, written about 116 A.D., show same-sex marriage and homosexuality were widely practiced and culturally accepted as “pious” throughout the whole of the Roman Empire. Tacitus recorded that Emperor Nero, who led the Empire from 54 – 69 A.D., went through a formal same-sex wedding ceremony with Nero himself wearing the bridal veil! The wedding took place in the presence of witnesses and included a dowry, marriage bed, and wedding torches. Tacitus recorded that “everything was public which even in a natural union is veiled by night.”1 It is for good reason we look back today and describe the moral practices of the Roman Empire with the words “pagan” and “heathen.”
Senator Tacitus referred to Jesus Christ in his Annals (Book 15, chapter 44). Tacitus recorded Jesus’ execution by Pontius Pilate and the fact of the early Christians living in Rome. Tacitus is one of the earliest secular Roman authors whose record confirms the crucifixion of Jesus.2
Nero, who practiced homosexuality and same-sex-marriage, was the Roman Emperor who ordered the most vicious persecution of Christians in the history of the Early Church following the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D. Tacitus records Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire that burned much of the city and persecuted them severely.
Now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land in America, we should not expect its advocates to cease their opposition against Christianity. Spiritual darkness has always wanted to stamp out the light Jesus Christ shines into people’s lives. If the lesson of history is any example, the struggle over time will only intensify and more and more persecution of Christians will follow.
Edward Gibbon, the distinguished historian who gave us the classic history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote: “Of the first fifteen emperors [of the Empire], Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct” [not homosexual]. Gibbon also said “marital faithfulness in the Roman Empire was virtually unknown,” and that “the dignity of marriage was restored by the Christians.”3
Two great struggles played out in the Roman Empire in the first few centuries after Jesus’ resurrection. One was to retain the status quo, which embraced widespread idolatry and rampant sexual sin. The other was the message of Jesus Christ. In redeeming people, Jesus’ death on the cross also redeemed families, and bequeathed marital faithfulness and fidelity to the Roman world. It was the Cross of Jesus that ultimately prevailed in this classic struggle. The love that won was the Christian gospel.
We must conclude that same-sex marriage is not a modern development of the last fifty years in American history. Instead of it being a new wave of the future, it is actually a return to the raw sin of the pagan past. The Christian message was the wave of the future in the first century. In the face of all opposition it brought morality and fidelity to marriages, and a whole new level of sanctity and security to the family. This was especially true for women and children. This is one of the outstanding areas that made Jesus the light of the world in the Empire. The gospel was good news indeed for whole families, as well as for Roman society.
Same-Sex Marriage – the Wrong Side of History
By legalizing same-sex marriage, the U. S. Supreme Court chose to stand on the wrong side of history. The Court, in effect, reached back to the first century, but did not choose the way of the Cross. Instead, it chose to legalize in the 21st century what in the first century was such a decadent lifestyle. This sin is 1) harmful for the couple because it defies nature, 2) harmful for children because the relationship cannot birth children, and if children are adopted, they are deprived of the love of a dad and a mom; and 3) harmful because it undermines the culture of marriage in a society. As it does so, a slippery slope follows that opens the door to polygamy and a host of other sins of the flesh. The cumulative effect is to cheapen the God-ordained institution of marriage.
Looking to the Future with the Ethic of Love
The message of Jesus Christ remains the wave of the future in twenty-first century America. As was true in the Roman Empire, Christians must now win the fight again. This understanding of history calls for a conclusion that is fundamental to the gospel of our Lord. Our Early Church fathers won, but it was a painful struggle of two hundred long years before the Roman Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity as an official religion of the Empire (in his Edict of Milan in 313 A.D.). During all of this time, the stance of the church did not budge that marriage in the divine plan is between a man and a woman.
Think about it. Our fathers in the faith held to the gospel for two centuries before Rome officially embraced the message of Christ Jesus. They did it while surrounded by Roman culture that was decidedly decadent, embracing homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and treating it as pious. Can we not follow in their footsteps in 21st century America?
I answer that we can, and to be obedient to our Lord, we must.
As the evils of same-sex marriage continue to become more and more visible, be assured truly Christ-centered families will stand out as contrasts; a diamond always sparkles brightest on a backdrop of black velvet. They will become attractive beacons of hope as American culture continues to slip down the slope into a neo-pagan night of moral darkness.
As Christians we love our American homeland dearly, so we cry out in our pain and beg to be understood. We also love the Bible. Hence, we stand with our Early Church fathers and embrace as a “marriage” only “what God has joined together.” We say this with broken hearts, and with no lack of love for our neighbors – including our homosexual neighbors (Matthew 22:39; Galatians 5:14). In fact, the Scriptures make clear it is not possible to love God with our whole heart, if we do not also love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40; 1 John 4:20). At the same time, love is never license to violate the heart of God.
Our Lord gave us the example for how we are to live as this struggle goes forward. [Jesus] “was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners;” yet, He was “the friend of… sinners” (Hebrews 7:26, KJV; Matthew 11:19). We are confident it is possible for His Church to be both “separate” and “friend” in the twenty-first century too.
We must also be prepared for things to get worse before they get better. American law and secular culture will surely intensify the pressure on believers like us to accept what we cannot embrace. The day might even come when we can only answer as did Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, when he was on trial for his life some five hundred years ago: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, my conscience is captive to the Word of God…. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.” If, indeed it comes to that, by God’s grace we will also join our voices with the Apostle Peter and the other disciples when they responded in unison two millennia ago to their national leaders, “We ought to obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29).
1 Benjamin Wicker, Ph.D.,”Gay Marriage – Nothing New Under the Sun,” The Catholic World Report, CWR Series, 2012. Dr. Wicker is visiting associate professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH.
2 Easterling, P.E. and Sterling, E. J. Kenney (general editors), The Cambridge History of Latin Literature, page 892 (Cambridge University Press, 1982, reprinted 1996). ISBN 0-521-21043-7.
3 Edward Gibbon. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1, (London. 1898, p. 313, note 40; also p. 478).